The Battle of Fort George was a battle fought during the War of 1812, in which the Americans defeated a British force and captured Fort George. The troops of the United States Army and vessels of the United States Navy cooperated in a very successful amphibious assault, although most of the opposing British force escaped encirclement.
Fort George was the westernmost of the British fortified posts on Lake Ontario, the others being York, the provincial capital, and Kingston where most of the ships of the Provincial Marine were based. The fort was situated on the western bank of the Niagara River near its mouth. On the American side of the river lay Fort Niagara.
On 27 April, at the start of the campaigning season of 1813, the Americans on Lake Ontario under General Henry Dearborn and Commodore Isaac Chauncey had gained success at the Battle of York, occupying the town for several days and capturing many guns and stores, although Brigadier General Zebulon Pike was killed by an exploding magazine. The American army was then transported across the lake in Chauncey's ships to Fort Niagara. Dearborn planned to attack Fort George next, but his army required rest and reorganisation. No preparations had been made to accommodate the troops at Fort Niagara, and they suffered considerable shortages and privations for several days. In particular, the wounded were left without shelter or medical attention.
On 15 May, Colonel Winfield Scott took up his appointment as Dearborn's Adjutant General (i.e. Chief of Staff), having been exchanged after being captured at the Battle of Queenston Heights in the previous year. (The British maintained that Scott had only been paroled pending an exchange, and protested when he took up the appointment.) Scott improved the army's administration and pushed forward the plans for the forthcoming attack. At the same time, Lieutenant Oliver Hazard Perry of the United States Navy, who had arrived from Lake Erie to request sailors and supplies for his squadron and was temporarily serving as one of Chauncey's senior officers, reconnoitred the landing sites at the mouth of the Niagara River, taking bearings and placing marker buoys.
The Americans planned to land on the shore of the lake rather than on the shore of the Niagara River. The troops would be supported as they landed by twelve schooners, each mounting one or more heavy cannon, which could approach the shore closely. Two larger vessels, the corvette Madison and the brig Oneida would engage the nearest British batteries.
The force was divided into four waves (limited by the number of boats available). The first wave was to be commanded by Scott himself; the second by Brigadier General John Parker Boyd, a professional soldier, and the third by Brigadier General William H. Winder, a recently commissioned lawyer. A brigade under a political appointee, Brigadier General John Chandler, formed the reserve, together with most of the artillery under Colonel Alexander Macomb. The Army's second-in-command, Major General Morgan Lewis, was nominallly in overall command of the landing force. Dearborn, the commander in chief, would observe from aboard the Madison.
As the American preparations proceeded, on 25 May they began to bombard Fort George from their positions along the river and from Fort Niagara, and also from Chauncey's schooners. The gunners in the fort and the nearby batteries were using cannonballs which had been heated in furnaces until they were red-hot, then quickly loaded into cannons and fired. Several log buildings within Fort George burned down, and the women and children in the fort were forced to take shelter within the bastions.
The commander of the British forces on the Niagara peninsula was Brigadier General John Vincent. He had 1,200 regular soldiers (the bulk of the 1st battalion of the 8th (King's) Regiment and the 49th Regiment, with detachments of the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles and the Glengarry Light Infantry). There were also up to 500 militia present, including Captain Runchey's Company of Coloured Men.
Although Vincent knew that an assault was imminent, he could not know from which direction it would come. To try and cover the entire threatened front, he split his regulars into three detachments, but placed most of them on the Niagara River, assuming that the Americans would attack under cover of their guns in Fort Niagara.
The attack, however, did not come along the Niagara River. Just after dawn on 27 May, an early morning fog dispersed to reveal the American vessels off the shore to the west. Scott's troops began landing west of the mouth of the Niagara River, while Perry's schooners silenced the nearby British batteries. Scott's force consisted of the U.S. 1st Rifle Regiment under Major Benjamin Forsyth, two companies of the U.S. 15th Infantry and the bulk of the U.S. 2nd Artillery, fighting as infantry. A company of the Glengarry Light Infantry charged the Americans with the bayonet as they waded ashore. Winfield Scott had to personally fight off a Glengarry soldier while falling into the water. The Glengarry company was outnumbered and forced to retreat, losing half their men. A company of the Royal Newfoundland also attacked but took heavy casualties from grapeshot fired by the schooners.
Scott advanced from the beach but was counter-attacked by British troops (the remnants of the troops which had already engaged Scott, plus five companies of the 8th (King's), Runchey's company and 100 other militia) which had been concentrated in a ravine out of the American fire. Scott was driven back, but once again the fire from Perry's schooners caused heavy losses among the British. Scott's force was reinforced by the leading troops of Boyd's brigade, which was just landing, and the British were driven back in turn.
As Winder's brigade also began landing, Vincent realised that he would soon be outflanked and surrounded in Fort George, which could quickly be bombarded into submission. He ordered an immediate retreat south to Queenston. Although he ordered the fort's guns to be spiked and the magazines to be blown up, the task was so hastily performed and Scott pursued so closely that the Americans were able to secure the fort substantially intact. One small magazine did explode, and the blast threw Scott from his horse and broke his collarbone. (Some British women and children had been left behind in the fort in the hasty retreat and would have suffered heavy casualties if the demolitions had proceeded as Vincent ordered).
Although Scott continued to press after Vincent and the American batteries bombarded the retreating British from the other side of the river, an attempt by American dragoons to cut off Vincent's retreat was ineffective. Vincent's rearguards, including Merritt's Troop of Provincial Dragoons, held off Scott although several stragglers were captured. As Scott waited for the American dragoons to reorganise before pressing on again, Brigadier General Boyd brought him orders from Major General Lewis to abandon the pursuit and return to Fort George.
The British official casualty return, for the regular troops only, gave 52 killed, 44 wounded and 262 missing; also mentioning that 16 men who had been “wounded on former occasions” had been left behind in the Fort George military hospital and were not included in the casualty total. The detachment of the (local) Lincoln Militia who fought at the battle lost 5 officers and 80 other ranks, although only 4 of these seem to have been killed. The Americans took 276 prisoners, 163 of them wounded. The wounded prisoners would have included the 16 wounded patients captured in the Fort George hospital. Including these 16 as unwounded prisoners (because they were captured at this engagement but received their wounds in earlier ones), this gives total British casualties of 183 killed, wounded or deserted; 147 wounded prisoners and 129 unwounded prisoners; adding up to a loss of 459 men.
The Americans had inflicted heavy casualties and captured a strongly fortified position with fewer losses to themselves. The victory can be credited to excellent planning and leadership by two comparatively junior officers; Scott and Perry.
When the Americans broke off the pursuit, Vincent continued his retreat to Beaver Dams, near present-day Thorold, Ontario, where he gathered in the other British regular detachments from Fort Erie and other posts higher up the Niagara, and temporarily disbanded the militia, before falling back to Burlington Heights near the western end of Lake Ontario.
When the British abandoned Fort Erie, Perry was able to move several armed schooners which had been blockaded in Black Rock into Lake Erie, and these were to be instrumental in his victory later in the year in the Battle of Lake Erie. However, the American army bungled its attempts to exploit the capture of Fort George by advancing up the Niagara peninsula, and they allowed Vincent to partially regain the initiative at the Battle of Stoney Creek. By concentrating their naval squadron against Fort George, the Americans had also left themselves vulnerable to a counter-attack on their base, and only indecisive command by the Governor-General of Canada, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, allowed the Americans to fight him off at the Battle of Sackett's Harbor.
The Americans subsequently withdrew into a small defensive enclave around Fort George. After a disaster when a sortie against a British outpost was surrounded and forced to surrender by Native Americans at the Battle of Beaver Dams, they remained largely inactive on this front until they abandoned Fort George in December 1813.